“The smell of a freshly opened bottle of beer is the smell of my country,” the great Liège-born writer Georges Simenon said. If the scent of Belgium is that of good ale, then the defining sound of the nation is the swish of bicycle tyres on wet roads, the hum of wind through spokes.
Cycling is wildly popular all over Belgium, but in the northern, Dutch-speaking half of the country it goes far beyond that. It is part of the psyche. You can no more imagine Flanders without bicycles than you can France without garlic, Germany without sausages.
It has been said the Flemish love of cycling is so deep as to be a form of lunacy. If that’s true, then the heart of the insanity is the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the sporting event of the year for Flandrians. It's Wimbledon, the Grand National and the FA Cup final all rolled into one, a festival, a second Christmas. And at the epicentre of the Ronde for over a decade sat one man: Johan Museeuw.
Throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium you saw Museeuw’s name, his image, from Genk to Ostend, printed on caps and jackets and t-shirts, even on the hoods of prams. On the slopes of the Kemmelberg during Ghent-Wevelgem I stood next to a dark-haired young woman who held her baby aloft as Museeuw approached and whispered his name into the child’s tiny ear like somebody reciting the catechism.
Johan Museeuw was born in Varsenare in West Flanders and raised in Gistel, the hometown of double Tour de France winner Sylvère Maes. His father Eddy had been a professional rider, a team-mate of one of the legendary Flemish tough guys, Frans “The Flying Milkman” Verbeeck.
“I watched the Spring Classics since before I can remember,” Museeuw says. “The family went to stand by the road for the Tour of Flanders and Ghent-Wevelgem most years. If I didn’t watch like that, then I followed on TV. My favourite riders growing up were Freddy Maertens because he lived in the area – his family had a laundry in Nieuwpoort and we’d see him sometimes on training runs; Roger De Vlaeminck because like me he did cyclo-cross, and Eddy Merckx because, well, he was Eddy Merckx, of course.”
Museeuw rode from an early age, training on the flat coastal plain around Gistel where North Sea gales make cycling as much a battle with the wind as any sailing regatta. But his focus was more on cyclo-cross than on road racing.
“My father had been a professional but there had been trouble with money. Wages weren’t paid regularly. After he rode in the Amstel Gold Race and came second, he went home, thought about it and quit. He started working as a motor mechanic and built up a business. When I was offered a contract by ADR, my father said to try it for a while and if it didn’t work out I could come back and work in the garage business with him.”
Museeuw’s early focus on cyclo-cross (he was Belgian junior champion) may have been a blessing. His lack of experience as an amateur road racer kept him away from the spotlight. Unlike many other talented young Belgian cyclists of the 1970s and ’80s, Museeuw did not labour under the “new Eddy Merckx” tag that blighted the careers of Eric Vanderaerden, Edwig Van Hooydonck and many more.
When he joined ADR in 1988 he raced alongside veteran Flemish riders Eddy Planckaert, Frank Hoste and Fons de Wolf, himself one of the legion of new Eddy Merckxs.
Nineteen-eighty-eight was Museeuw’s baptism in the Ronde – he would ride in it every year thereafter until he retired after the 2004 race. It was a brutal day of pouring, icy rain and multiple crashes. “That was a hard race,” Museeuw recalls. “I was just a helper then. I worked really hard for Eddy and the team. And of course, Eddy won, so everybody was happy.”
Planckaert, who was 29 at the time, would later confess that he was so utterly exhausted by the final few kilometres – and if you want proof of the madness of Belgian cycling, this surely is it – he had an orgasm and rode the final stretch in “a divine state”.
At the end of the 1989 season, ADR fell apart in acrimony and Museeuw found himself at Lotto. A vacuum had been left by the retirement of leader Claude Criquielion (one of the few successful Belgian cyclists to come from the southern, French-speaking part of the country – Frank Vandenbroucke and Philippe Gilbert are the only others that spring readily to mind) and the 25-year-old Museeuw assumed the role.
Lotto were the Belgian team of the moment, managed by Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke, Frank’s uncle. In 1991, Museeuw was still primarily known as a sprinter, but he trained hard for the Tour of Flanders that year. “I prepared like a marathon runner during the Three Days of De Panne. I did about 300km a day,” he recalls.
Museeuw’s training regime was notoriously brutal. Mapei-GB team-mate Wilfried Peeters once said “95 out of 100 riders couldn’t deal with it”. The training runs regularly went on for over six hours. Often they were muscle-numbingly fast. Museeuw ignored hills and wind. “Why slow down,” he declared, “when you can pedal harder?”
In the 1991 Ronde, the training helped, while a cold picked up during Paris-Nice hindered. On a typical Flemish spring day of lukewarm sunshine and cold showers, the course took in 14 climbs. Of the field of 199, only 69 riders finished. Museeuw found himself in a breakaway group of four, alongside Rolf Sørensen, Rolf Golz (both of Ariostea) and the 1989 winner, Edwig Van Hooydonck. On the last two climbs, the tension in the group mounted. The gangly Van Hooydonck was no sprinter. Museeuw and the others knew it. They waited for him to attack. He tried it on the Muur de Geraardsbergen and failed, but went again on the Bosberg. This time he escaped to win by 45 seconds. Despite being outnumbered, Museeuw won the sprint convincingly to take second. “I drove home from that race knowing that I could win in the future,” he says now, “I knew I was making progress. To win the Tour of Flanders you have first to understand it. You have to ride it and learn.”
Van Hooydonck was a year younger but he had ridden and won the under-23 edition of the Ronde. He was fresh-faced but he knew his way around.
By the end of 1992, Museeuw was tired of Lotto – where the archetypal Flemish attitude “that not to come first is to come last” sapped even his enormous stamina. He moved to Mapei-GB. Mapei was an Italian team, but it had a Flemish heart. Museeuw rode alongside Carlo Bomans, Ludwig Willems and Wilfried Peeters. Team manager Patrick Lefevere was also from West Flanders. Museeuw felt at home. His form improved. He put it down to the professionalism of the Italian team and the change in diet. The Belgians ate steaks; now, red meat was off the menu. Others, including Van Hooydonck, say the new ‘diet’ included more than pasta. Museeuw has confessed to using EPO during his final season, but strenuously denies taking it during his glory years.
Museeuw was sometimes criticised for being too cautious, almost timid in races. The attitude was seen as an extension of his public image. Museeuw was said to be quiet, shy, monosyllabic, wary. He always refuted that suggestion, calling it “a good story for journalists”. To me he seems typically Flemish – bright, chatty with a nice line in self-deprecating jokes that tend to underline rather than undermine his self-confidence. When asked if his 17 rides in the Ronde is a record, he replies: “I don’t think so. Perhaps. It could be!” (Briek Schotte, winner in ’42 and ’48, holds the record for Ronde starts – 20.)
What is undoubtedly true is that Museeuw shied away from the limelight. He was not an attention seeker like his friend Mario Cipollini. He hid in the Mapei team bus before races, avoiding the hullaballoo, emerging late. Maybe that was the best way of minimising the pressure, for by now Museeuw was a nailed-on favourite – if not quite with the Belgian public, then certainly with the nation’s bookmakers. The latter would remain constant. The former was to change with the 1993 Ronde.
The previous three years had been tough for Museeuw. He’d come close to quitting in 1991 after a poor Tour de France, been in despair after he lost the green points jersey in the final week of the 1992 Tour, then broke his leg in a crash just before the World Championships. As the saying went, if it wasn’t for bad luck, he’d have had no luck at all.
Despite that, Museeuw was 3/1 favourite for the ’93 race alongside Maurizio Fondriest and the now fading Van Hooydonck. In those days the Ronde set out from Sint Niklaas in the mist-wreathed marshy flats of the Waasland. For an hour the rain poured, yet by the Kruisberg there were still 40 riders in the leading pack. The final thinning occurred on a narrow cobbled stretch shortly after the Eikenberg climb. Van Hooydonck initiated the surge. Only the strongest went with him: Franco Ballerini, Max Sciandri, Frans Maassen, Fondriest, an unknown Italian, Dario Bottaro, and two more Flemings, the old school ironman Marc Sergeant and Museeuw. The group of eight gradually opened up a lead that stretched to two minutes with an hour of racing left.
Museeuw attacked shortly after the Berendries climb. He and the Dutchman Maassen broke away, taking close to half a minute lead. Museeuw attempted to shake off Maassen on the Muur, but the Dutchman hung grimly on. Maassen knew he had no answer to Museeuw’s power in the sprint, but hoped, as he later said, that “the pressure of expectation would be too much” for the Flemish favourite…
“People talk about the pressure,” Museeuw says now, “but you need the pressure. It’s what makes you want to go out and do your best. With racing you have to prepare as well as you can. For the Classics you start in October, November. You train and you think about those races. You prepare in your legs and your head. Then when the race comes you go out confident. The crowd, the expectation, you can’t do anything about that. All you can do is prepare yourself.”
And this time Museeuw was prepared. He kept his head. He won the sprint with a minimum of fuss. It wasn’t a spectacular victory, but for the Flemish it had one very attractive component – the beaten rider was from the Netherlands. And there is nothing sweeter to the Belgians than defeating the Dutch.
“It was a special day,” Museeuw says. “The first win is different because you don’t know if you will ever repeat it. You think maybe this is your moment. Sure, that day I went as well as I ever had. I felt strong and confident. Maassen wouldn’t work with me in the break, but that didn’t bother me. Even if the others had caught us, I knew I would beat them in the sprint. That’s how it is sometimes.”
For the matter-of-fact Museeuw that’s as close as things get to whooping and punching the air.
If 1993 was a performance of consummate professionalism, the following year’s race was textbook cock-up. When Museeuw, Andrei Tchmil, Franco Ballerini and Gianni Bugno swung into the final straight at Meerbeke, Flemish fans anticipated a second successive victory for their man.
However, it was Bugno who hit the front with 400 metres to go. As the Italian jumped away from the left of the group, Museeuw attempted to go with him but was unintentionally baulked by Tchmil. As a consequence the Italian took a five-metre lead. The finish at Meerbeke is slightly uphill and Museeuw’s pursuit saw the gap gradually closing. Inch-by-inch, Museeuw clawed his way back. The pair crossed the line side-by-side, but Bugno got the photo finish by a tyre width. It was one of the most nail-biting climaxes in the Ronde’s long history. But Museeuw’s second place was viewed as failure by many. Mapei-GB team boss, Patrick Lefevere, for one, was furious about his rider’s tactics, shouting that “Museeuw should have won that sprint on one leg”.
Museeuw too was devastated by the outcome. Looking back even now he blames himself. “That was a chance I missed. I had a lot of misfortune that race. I punctured and then I got caught up in a crash on Oude Kwaremont. A bus broke down on the climb and it blocked the route. My brakes got jammed. Because of the bus I had to wait three minutes for a repair. We spent about 60 kilometres chasing down the leaders. I got a small knock from Tchmil just as Bugno made his move. But in a race like the Tour of Flanders, things always happen. Crashes, punctures, it’s the same for every rider. That race I lost because I made a bad decision. I should have gone from 200 metres, not from so far out.”
For the Flemish, every year a local doesn’t win the Tour of Flanders seems like a decade. The hunger for success mounts exponentially and with it the pressure on the local riders cranks up, and up. In the mid-1990s Belgian cycling had lost ground to other nations, Italy in particular. Up until that point Flanders had produced a string of powerful riders who had dominated the Spring Classics. In Museeuw’s lifetime there had been De Vlaeminck, Godefroot, Leman, Verbeeck, De Meyer, an assortment of Planckaerts. Now suddenly it seemed as if the conveyor belt had stopped. Van Hooydonck’s career had thrown its chain, Eric Vanderaerden’s frustration had boiled over. Only Museeuw was left. In despair the local press took to calling him “The Last of the Flandrians”.
Museeuw tried to shake the tag off saying: “You don’t have to be Flemish to be a Flandrian”. That might sound nonsensical, but it had a history. Fiorenzo Magni was the first foreign rider to dominate the Ronde. The Italian won three times in a row from 1949 to 1951 in conditions of ferocious cold. The Flemish press dubbed him “The Tuscan Flandrian”.
“To win the Ronde,” Museeuw explains, “you need experience. You can’t just turn up and expect victory, no matter who you are. You need to know the race and the course – every hill, every curve, every cobble; how the weather affects things. You don’t have to be Flemish to understand this, but you need to know Flanders.”
In 1995 the pressure that Maassen had identified two years earlier was even higher. Museeuw’s reaction was to produce a display of such classic attacking riding it even drew murmurs of approval from Eddy Merckx. That day I stood on the top of the Muur. A large and celebratory crowd waved beer glasses in the air and sang a song in Museeuw’s honour as radios announced his arrival into Geraardsbergen. He got to the base of the steep incline side by side with Fabio Baldato. They rode up the cobbles together past a vast memorial to the Great War dead and roadside calvaries as if on some torturous pilgrimage. Then, as the pair approached the summit – legs pumping, heads down, bodies hunched – the Belgian dug deep and accelerated. The Italian tried to respond. He gritted his teeth. He grimaced, but his legs had gone to treacle. Museeuw accelerated away from him and over the crest. The crowd went crazy. Klaxons sounded, the veterans in their woollen cycling caps grinned broadly, a group of lads brandishing Flemish flags roared out the anthem: “Yo-yo Johan, Johan Museeuw!”
Museeuw did not slacken. His charge continued. By the top of the Bosberg he was 20 seconds clear and rode the rest of the way to Ninove as if it was a time-trial. His lead increased almost by the metre. By the finish he was a minute and 27 seconds clear. It was a classic Flandrian victory.
“I had a super day in 1995. I didn’t attack on the Muur because I was afraid of Baldato’s sprint or as part of a plan. In a race, you don’t have five seconds to think about things. You make a decision in an instant. You feel it. What I said about experience, by 1995 I had a nose for the Ronde. I could recognise the moment when it came, just like that.”
Museeuw’s crushing victory cemented him as a Flemish hero. He was awarded another of the great Magni’s titles, becoming the second “Lion of Flanders”.
The hills that are the main feature of the Ronde run between Ronse and Geraardsbergen, a little spine that separates Flanders from Wallonia. The chain includes the Bosberg, Berendries, Oude Kwaremont, Kluisberg, Kapelmuur, Eikenmolen and the Koppenberg – a hill so famous it has its own website. These names resonate with Flemish cycling fans as those of Henry V’s faithful lieutenants in the Crispin’s Day “band of brothers” Speech do with Englishmen.
The up-and-down course seems to have been mimicked by Museeuw’s relationship with the Ronde. After the triumph of 1995 came disappointment in 1996 and 1997 when crashes and mechanical malfunctions thwarted him. Michele Bartoli and Rolf Sørensen kept the race out of Flemish hands on both occasions.
In the ’97 race, Museeuw finished 13th, the first time he’d been outside the top three in five years. There was talk in the media that his best days were behind him. Not that you’d have known it from the reception he got from the hordes watching on the roadside in 1998. The race started in bright sunshine in Bruges. Hot favourite once again, Museeuw hid in the Mapei-GB team bus until the last minute. When he finally emerged a huge cheer went up from the crowd. It barely stopped for 250 kilometres.
Museeuw, irritated by chatter that he was past it, channelled his anger superbly and on the straight, asphalt incline of Tenbossestraat – the section of the race where he’d attacked in 1993 – he powered away from his rivals with such an amazing and unexpected burst of speed, he almost crashed into the back of race director Marc Sergeant’s motorcycle. The field simply could not live with him. By the time he reached the finish in Meerbeke he was 45 seconds ahead of his pursuers and pulling away from them still.
“It wasn’t planned to attack on the Tenbosse. But the weather was good and even at that stage, with just 26km to go, there were too many riders left with a chance. I decided I should attack – as I say, by then I could sense the moment. I looked around when I got over the top expecting to have been followed, but there was only Peter Van Petegem, so I just kept on going. The chasing group had my team-mates Zanini, Peeters and Ballerini in it. I knew they would protect me.”
The small world of Flemish cycling had also come to Museeuw’s aid. “A neighbour of mine in Gistel had ridden the course on the Saturday – there is a sportive then. He told me that there was a tailwind. He said he’d been able to do 50kph on the road from the Bosberg to Meerbeke. I knew that if an amateur could do 50, I could do 60. I put my head down. Going at that speed I knew nobody could catch me. Winning the first race was special, but it’s different to ride home alone. It’s a good feeling.”
The victory took Museeuw into an elite group of riders who had won the Ronde three times – Magni, of course, Eric Leman from Ledegem with victories in 1970, ’72 and ’73, on the latter occasion taking a four-way sprint against Merckx, Maertens and Willy De Geest. The other three-time winner Achiel Buysse achieved his treble during World War Two when the route was shorter and only Belgians entered. Nobody has ever won four.
Museeuw did not have long to celebrate. Less than two weeks after his triumph, the Lion of Flanders lay in a Ghent hospital, delirious with morphine as surgeons discussed the case for amputating his left leg. He’d fallen during Paris-Roubaix and in filthy conditions in the Arenberg Forest, the gash had become infected. The leg was saved, but the process of rehabilitation was long and hard. He was 32. Retirement must have been a temptation. “I never considered it, not for a moment,” he says. Museeuw wouldn’t have been a Flandrian if he’d thought of quitting.
The injury and his brave refusal to submit saw Museeuw rise from hero to idol. In 1999, the route of the Ronde was tweaked to take in his home town of Gistel for the first time. A week before, in Zottegem during the Three Days of De Panne, I watched him emerge from the Mapei-Quickstep team bus. Tequila Sunrise by The Eagles was blaring from the speakers and, as he descended into a thicket of waving microphones and tape recorders, he seemed more rock god than sportsman.
By now, Flemish cycling’s production line had started up again. Museeuw had new, younger rivals. Peter Van Petegem had won Het Volk twice and Tom Steels had just taken a stage of De Panne, the first Flemish rider to do so for seven years. French-speaker Frank Vandenbroucke was also on the scene.
The 1999 race was on Easter Sunday, the crowds enormous. Half of the population of Flanders seemed to be on the roadside. Most were cheering for “Yo-Yo” Johan. Mapei’s preparation had been disrupted during the Three Days of De Panne when police intercepted a package of amphetamines mysteriously sent to the team hotel. But the crowds were not interested in drug scandals, only in seeing their beloved Lion return.
On the platform before the race Roger De Vlaeminck was asked who he thought would win. He picked Van Petegem. The crowd was outraged. For surely the only time in his life, the Beast of Eeklo was booed by Flemish cycling fans.
Unpopular though his call may have been, De Vlaeminck got it right, Van Petegem outsprinting Museeuw at Meerbeke after the Flemish pair and Vandenbroucke had broken away on the Muur. After the previous 12 months, second place seemed like a victory of sorts.
Museeuw suffered a further setback in 2000 when he was involved in a motorcycle crash and took a severe blow to the head that left him in a coma. In 2002, he was part of a five-man breakaway, but as the race approached the finish line he was outmanoeuvred by the Mapei pairing of Andrea Tafi and Daniele Nardello. Museeuw came second. Afterwards he sat on the team bus and wept.
“I hadn’t expected to get another chance of victory,” he says. “As well as experience, to win the Tour of Flanders you also need to be explosive. Paris-Roubaix is flat. It’s a hard race but you can win with stamina and endurance. It’s a race for a rider with a big engine. But the Tour of Flanders, because of the hills, you need a different kind of strength. You need dynamism. When you get past a certain age your muscles don’t have it any more. To win the Ronde there is a small window when you have the cunning, the knowledge, but also still that type of power in your legs.”
Museeuw rode his seventeenth and final Tour of Flanders in 2004. Crowds along the route celebrated as if it was a royal procession. He finished 15th and retired from racing two weeks later.
Since then, Museeuw’s protégé Tom Boonen, from Mol, near Antwerp, has won three times, while the Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara took the race in 2010, 2013 and 2014. Each is in the hunt for that elusive fourth win. Both are nudging toward their mid-thirties and running out of opportunities.
“They both have a chance of winning a fourth time,” Museeuw says, “though I think because of age they are better suited to Paris-Roubaix. There are younger riders coming up on them. It will be difficult. To win once is hard: twice, three times, very few do that. To be in that top group of riders makes me feel good, but if someone breaks the record I will be pleased for them. I can’t affect what happens nowadays. I can only be happy with what I achieved myself.”
Whatever anyone else does next year, or in the future, Museeuw’s place amidst the madness of Flemish cycling is assured.